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A Semiotic Analysis on the Cold War Imagery as Employed in the Television Show,

The Americans.

In this paper, the study will employ the framework proposed by Van Leeuwen
(2008) in analysing representation social actors. Images of high modality, such as
stills of photography or in this case, the stills from an opening credit of a television
show, will be used as items for this study. Chandler (2013) noted that cinematic
signifier (such as images in a movie/ television show) suggest less obvious gap
between the signifier and signified, which in turn makes the image at hand to
seemingly offer reflections of reality. Simply put, images that will be analysed in this
study will feature real images , which are more realistic and high in modality in the
effort of analysing the perceptual, mass media codes in the constructed reality of the
television show The Americans.
To look at how ideologies associated with Cold-War era of Soviet Union and USA
are realized in the television show, The Americans.
To examine reasons for employing a particular image and its associated
meanings in the depiction of Soviet Union and the USA.

Research Questions
What are the Icons, Symbols and Indexical signs used in the depiction of Soviet
Union and USA in television show, The Americans?
How are social actors represented in television shows depicting Soviet Union and
USA during the Cold War?
What are the reasons for employing (1) and (2) in the depiction of Soviet Union
and the United States in the opening credits of?

Literature Review
Van Leeuwen (2008) noted that images provide us with interpretations,
ideologically coloured angles that appeals to us by suggestion, by connotation of our
barely conscious, half-forgotten knowledge. It is with images that the viewer take an
active role because meaning formation are ultimately decided by the viewer instead
of the intended meaning that are trying to be encoded by the image producer.
Chandler (2013) in his discussion of the role of signs in the construction of
reality argued that to semioticians, a defining feature off signs is that they are
treated by users as standing for or representing other things. In relation to this
study, we will study this from the perspective that formation of meanings from
images, just like words, are abstractions and that there is no direct correspondence
between images and things in the world.

Only Visual Text will be analyzed in this study. This is by virtue of the opening
credits for the television show The Americans itself which make us of only textual
names and significant use of visual imagery.
Daniel Chandlers Constructivist approach to Semiotic Analysis is employed in
this study. In short, our understanding of semiotic signs employed in the opening
credits that will be studied are more concerned of the relation of elements to each
other in a text. Meaning is shaped by way of understanding the discourse that
occurs within a text.
Icons, symbols and indexes employed in the opening credits of the television
show The Americans are first analysed to serve as a ground for the discussion of
Soviet Union and the United States of America as having differing political and
economic ideology. This differentiation will further be explored on the representation
of social actors of both countries, coupled with theories of economy and socio
cultural phenomena as guidance for the assertions that will be made throughout the
The Analysis will be divided in two parts : 1) exploring how Index, Icon and
Symbol are used in the opening credit of the television show, The Americans and , 2)
the representation of social actors from the same opening credit.

The analysis will began with a general description of the text and its elements,
followed by contextual knowledge (often not available in the text itself) for any
attempt of understanding the text to be meaning full.
Visual 1(A)

Visual 1(B)

The two images above feature Capitol Building in Washington D.C and Saint
Basils Cathedral in Moscow. Both images are of man-made buildings, structured
with walls and roof. These two images are symbolic in nature, used to represent and
mean a particular message. Literary works within the realm of sociology and political
science would have us informed that certain connotations are attached to images
that are symbolic of a particular country and geographical location. Words such as
Capitalism, Democracy are often used hand in hand with images of the United

States or other iconic images supposedly representative of the aforementioned

ideas. Similarly, images featuring Soviet Union comes it them the attached
connotation of Communism and Socialism. Again, human ability to recognize that an
image as being associated with a specific geographical location lends itself to
cognitive and emotional response on the part of the reader (Soules, 2007, )
What both of the images do is that they position an image and provides a
mental picture for the viewer and the interpreter of the message to identify and
associate images with a specific group of people, that shares their aspirations and
their social order and organization.
Visual 2

The next pair of images employ similar concept as explained above, that
cognitive association with icons, symbols and indexes are used for its ability for
humans to recall and recollect information in the form of visual images faster than
written word. Here we see that instead of buildings and a location being used to
recall our understanding, the writer or producer of the images above employ
indexical status of signs in our minds to achieve meaning between signifier-signified.
In this case, prior knowledge of the signified images is needed for the image to

achieve its communicative purposes. Simply put, the readers, in interpreting the
message would need to know beforehand that the indexed image (that of statues of
Vladimir Lenin and Thomas Jefferson) are indexical of an actual individual and not
created out of thin air to represent something. Once this knowledge is known to the
reader, additional connotation and representation can now be attached to them.
Readers associate the indexical images of these men (signifier) as
representing their ideas and actions that they have taken (signified). It could be
argued that this relationship is highly arbitrary, especially when for example, an
American interprets of Vladimir Lenin and similarly, someone of Soviet Union
interprets indexical image of Thomas Jefferson. This relationship are said to be
arbitrary because they are learned, primarily through media and shared knowledge
of those around them. It is through this process that the indexical images achieve its
communicative purposes. The final result of these processes would have us form a
cognitive and connotative association of Vladimir Lenin being associated with
Communism, Socialism and Soviet Union and Thomas Jefferson as being
associated to connotative meanings such as Capitalism and Democracy.
Representation of Social Actors
Visual 3(A)

Visual 3(B)

The pair of










depicts what appears to be a young boy swinging his baseball bat. The second
image of the sequence shows a young boy, without his shirt on and another man
standing behind him holding a long stick. This second image is foregrounded by
Cyrillic characters and is slightly lower in modality than the first image because of the
fact that it is in black-and-white photography as opposed to the first image which is in
colour photography.
Barthes (1973, as cited in Leeuwen ,2008) noted that objects reproduced in
images carry with them the association of where the come from and this ultimately
portray the values and ideas that are commonly associated with the place of origin of
that particular object/culture/ actor in the image. Thus it is interesting to note in this
study that two different images have been selected to represent 2 different countries
with differing ideologies such as the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
By focussing on physical activities engaged by the element in the picture, a schema
in the part of the viewer is triggered to associate an image of a boy with a baseball
bat and a batting helmet as being that of an American and inversely, the image that
of a boy and an older man to be that of a Soviet one.

It would be argued that these conclusions that we have come to, from the
perspective of Semiotics are not entirely wrong when we take into consideration
other factors such as theory of economy in informing us about elements depicted in
the picture. Briefly, in economics, means of production is described as physical
assets to produce wealth such as machinery, tools and factories. In an agrarian
society, soil and shovel are the means of production, which is what we could see
from the second picture, the image of a boy and an older man.
Thus it can be seen now that the selection of these two differing images has
been done delicately to include with it all the possible interpretation in realizing a set
of meaning. As discussed earlier, one picture depicts the USA and sports that young
boy are involved in and another, Soviet Union , realized by an image of a boy and an
older man engaging in an agricultural activity in the realization of agriculture as a
means to production, which serves as a central economic idea in the ideology of
Communism. Finally, the use of both texts could be taken to mean that youngsters in
the USA engage in baseball as a pastime activity and those in the Soviet Union
engage in agriculture/ farming

Visual 4(A)

Visual 4(B)

It appears to show the presence of a physical activity commonly known as

dancing featured on both texts. Picture on the right is inconclusive in its reference to
a particular group of people so the second picture is used as a starting point for
analysis. The dance depicted on the right is commonly known as Hopak/ Cossack
dance, a type of dance popular in the region of Ukraine and its surrounding areas
with similar culture and historical background.
What this section of analysis wishes to highlight is that meaning making does
not necessarily be achieved only through familiar images that are used for
interpretation. It is argued that inferring of messages, (as was done to the set of
images presented above), for those who are not familiar with the Hopak/ Cossack
dance are done by way of familiarity through defamaliarity. This concept, adapted

from the idea of familiarity heuristic in psychology informs us that in the presence of
elements that are unable to be recalled by the reader, the bias of availability is
related to the ease of recall. That is, because image 4 (B) might be harder to
interpret, readers will use available resources from images of 4(A) in order to form
meaning. So readers that accept as the dance in Visual 4(B) as being foreign and
the Visual 4(A) as being American( eventhough it could just be about anyone in
shorts). Thus the writers have achieved his/ her purpose of creating the text- to
achieve cognitive association.

It is particularly interesting to note that Items of national symbols are often the
focus when delivering message to the masses. Whether in media or propaganda,
knowledge of how we associate certain images with a particular message or
ideology is immensely important in harvesting attention of audience. Like
advertisement, communication of ideologies rely heavily on the audience knowing its
intended meaning as well as other meanings that are not related to it.
Symbolic shape, with similar design such as the star (in both the Soviet Union
and the United States ) means completely different in the two country/ ideology.
Interpretation of Icons, Symbols, Indexes used in the representation of two different
nations, with two different political and economic systems are highly dependent on
viewers / readers contextual knowledge and familiarity with cultural understanding
of both domains.

Culture is almost always connected with national aspirations or ideals, and
vice versa. What was evident, especially in the representation of social actors of The
Americans opening credit was the association of social activities as being related to
a specific geographical location and to a particular belief system espoused by a
group of people.
The role of the reader (of images, text, etc) is particularly highlighted, albeit
covertly, with the emphasis on meaning making being dependent on readers sense
of identity that is established through signs. The focus this study on the opening
credit of the television show The Americans have been directed towards meaning
making, agenda setting are all dependent on sign systems. This sign system realize
a notion, or an idea , on which we continue to
reaffirm our knowledge of the world,

build, reassess, revalidate and

and how we view ourselves in relation of

others. What is more interesting is that these sign systems, such as the hammer and
sickle as the symbol for Communism, are signs that we do not create but are
accepted through conventional use. Cognitive association, through conventional use
enables the producer off the message to achieve its intended meaning that might be
guided by the need to inform, disseminate new information and knowledge, or to
serve as a tool for propaganda in setting the agenda for a country/ a group of people
with similar aspirations.

Ashcraft, M.H. (2006). Cognition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey; Pearson
Education Inc. ISBN 013198229X

Henslin, J. M. (202). Essentials of Sociology. Taylor & Francis US.